Sex Education Isn’t About Sex At All: it’s about emotional intelligence
Season three of Sex Education is nothing short of exceptional. While its first episode worried me a little that it was choosing sensationalism over depth, rather than portent of decline it was exactly the opposite. Sex Education has matured beyond its first two wonderful seasons with each episode constructing and developing individual character arcs like instruments in a symphony, building towards a crescendo that makes the heart sing. If Episode One felt like a choppy start, by Episode Seven it was literally singing. The result was both sensational, and sensational – and if there is such a thing as “the perfect episode”, Episode Severn of Season Three of Sex Education is it (the final episode of Six Feet Under notwithstanding). Spoilers follow.
You would think it difficult to have so many different characters in a single piece while enabling all of them to maintain a kind of dimensionality: but Sex Education succeeds in doing just that. In fact, the de-facto protagonist pair, Maeve and Otis, and their Groundhog Day “will they won’t they” routine (which my generation may refer to as the “Sam and Diane“) was pretty much the least interesting of all the arcs – putting what may be understood as the secondary characters front of stage instead. It was their journeys that we became interested in. And it was how these journeys were communicated that made them so remarkable.
It’s about individuation, independence, and interdependence:
Finally a variety of romance narratives that entirely avoid what I like to call “The Great Wonderwall Fallacy”, that is, if the lyric “you’re going to be the one who saves me” is part of your relationship narrative, you’re in big trouble. Not a single relationship across Sex Education is underlined by this premise. In fact, all the relationships are deeply engaged in the paradox that underlines all relationships – navigating sameness and difference.
Otis and Ruby work their way through their differences, most obviously their mismatched social group membership and the importance of the eyes of their peers on them: but more importantly the opening up of who they really are. Ruby takes the risk of vulnerability when she shows Otis inside her world, the less showy manifestation of her domestic situation. Otis’s presence and witnessing of this with curiosity and an open heart cracks open Ruby’s own heart and the social clique “mismatch” problem quickly dissolves away – only to reveal the even larger problem of the mismatch in their feelings for each other – Otis doesn’t love her back.
In refusing to fake it, he handles it cack-handedly. Both parties retreat to their friends for support and advice. Hurt is expressed without turning into rancour, condescension, or disrespect. Parties manage to talk things through. Parties manage to listen. This emotionally healthy trope is repeated again and again. Characters must be true to themselves before they can engage in truly authentic relationships.
Aimee and Maeve: Lacking good-enough parental support they decide to mother each other. They do so in dogged support for each other’s individuation processes despite their differences in class, upbringing, and intelligence. This is most poignant in the final episode, where Aimee (who has generally been on the receiving end of Maeve’s intellect) wisely suggests that putting boys ahead of opportunity is just not an option. This intimacy is achieved only after the sequence in which the class-misunderstanding intervention on Aimee’s part threatened to undermine their relationship – but the capacity to talk through differences ultimately prevailed.
Mr. and Mrs. Grof: The older generation were practically unable to speak at all – needing their shells cracked open by therapist Jean. And yet we watch them warm and open. With the two of them we get a happy ending, but not the one we’re generally led to expect. They don’t get back together – however, they do find themselves and deepen who they are as individuals. While “finding one’s self” is indeed a cliche on its own, it’s a hard one to smirk at that while watching Mr. Grof enjoying the cooking and lighting a candle with a romantic flourish while Mrs. Grof chooses herself over an easy slide back with her old mister. We might shed a tear (I did) at what they found inside what they lost. In fact, nearly every character in Sex Education comes out deeper, bigger, and more themselves after a loss.
Eric, Adam, and Rahim: Theirs may enter history as one of the most engaging and kindest triangular relationships on television. Three young men of different temperaments, character, race, history, and relationship to their sexuality. And yet in all three we find nobility, honesty, and hearts open to each other in the most challenging of circumstances. The continuing arc being how one can truly be themselves, and be in a relationship with others who are different. Again, challenges, hardship, but never rancour, condescension, or nastiness. When Rahim criticises Adam’s poetry or affection for dog shows, this is done with such honesty and authenticity that you almost think it’s done out of love. Maybe it is.
Cal and Jackson: As Cal expresses at one point to Jackson “I made your cis-het brain explode”. As if navigating relationships as teens isn’t hard enough – this can be made more complicated by as yet unresolved issues of identity – working out who we are. What is beautiful about the relationship between Cal and Jackson as it’s portrayed here is that Cal’s non-binary identity isn’t foregrounded like some sort of ill-fitting agenda of inclusivity (like back in the days of “a gay character on East Enders) but rather a piece of a larger question about how identities develop within an individual and between them. Identity and how to be together became a kind of friction of an uninvited guest between them – but it never became something that couldn’t be talked about and this is where Sex Education really shines.
Rupture and Repair:
Rupture and repair is a concept that is absolutely central to human relationships. Quite simply it means that ruptures (crises, fights, conflicts) are inevitable in relationships and that the way in which we address these ruptures are serve to deepen them. That doesn’t mean they necessarily prevail as relationships however. You might say that the Grofs have a deeper relationship in separation than when they were together now that they can actually speak and listen to each other.
Otis and Maeve; Maeve and Isaac; Eric, Adam, and Rahim; Ruby and Otis; Jackson and Cal; Aimee and Maeve, Ola and Otis; Otis and his mother; Lily and Ola; Vivienne and Jackson; Maeve and her mother; all of them go through the process of rupture and repair. All of them seemingly having access to a way of communicating that allows them the room to be empathetic and kind, while working through the difficulties of interpersonal difference.
Probably the most difficult relationship is between Jean and Jakob. Paradoxically, we might consider that despite her skills as a couples counsellor, Jean is pretty terrible at being vulnerable and communicative in her personal life. And though Jakob is portrayed as a taciturn straight guy who is loth to share his feelings, he is actually much more straightforward about them that Jean is.
In fact, the adults in Sex Education are surrounded by younger people who do communication much better than they do. In Sex Education, it’s the young people that are squarely the adults
While Jean might have the most sophisticated language for understanding, facilitating, and educating about the dynamics of relationships, after head teacher Hope and Maeve’s mother, Jean is probably the character who is least sophisticated to integrating that language into her life. By treating everyone around her as counselling clients, she is always at least a degree of separation from those around her, and they notice. Therapists and counsellors out there (and likely their partners if they have them) may find themselves unconsciously nodding right now.
People Being People:
Perhaps what Sex Education does best is it presents people being people first. It enables us to identify with Eric not because he is a Black Nigerian Gay Man, but because he is Eric. While all those other things remain true, it is Eric’s spirit that we are attracted to – not the categories of his identity – though they no doubt contribute to this spirit. We are not interested in the relations between Jackson and Cal because he is cis-het and they are non/-binary – we identify with them because we are deeply engaged with them as people coming to better understand the role of their own and each other’s identity. While nobody is blind to Isaac’s disability, his relationship with Maeve isn’t interesting because of that alone – it’s interesting because of the authenticity of how they are with each other – and the way in which their intimacy develops. Most importantly, how they are with each other.
Todays discourse around sexuality, gender, race, identity, neurodiversity, age, politics, and disability is a difficult one. It is impossible to create popular media without immediately wading into problematics. As such much media that is produced often go one way or another. They ignore it and hope for the best, or they create some form of “representation” that so often feels hollow and tokenistic, or they produce over-wrought narratives where the difficult characteristic eclipses the complex humanity of the character embodying it.
Sex Education does none of those things.
By putting people first, and giving these people to the capacity to talk about these things with emotional intelligence, Sex Education cuts to the chase around contemporary identity politics. By making everything talk-aboutable Sex Education avoids walking on eggshells and puts everything on the table. Despite the obvious threat of Hope’s desire to turn Moordale into some sort of The Wall meets 1984, Sex Education exists in a netherworld where instead of the need for safe spaces, the Sex Ed universe is itself a safe space. It’s not a space free of heartbreak, misunderstanding, or conflict – but it is a space where each of these things can be worked through with compassion and respect – and that’s about as close as you can come to Utopia.
Dr. Aaron Balick is a psychotherapist, author, and Director of Stillpoint.